More than seven months after the sudden death of U.S. Rep. Don Young, the 49-year congressman is playing a starring role in the race to replace him.
Democrat Rep. Mary Peltola has embraced the legacy of the longest-serving Republican in the U.S. House. Meanwhile, one of the Republicans opposing Peltola, Nick Begich III, is facing criticism from Young’s former staff and making his own accusations about Young’s tenure.
Peltola has shaped her short tenure in the U.S. House around Young’s legacy, hiring his former chief of staff as her own and reintroducing some of his bills. She has also made her personal relationship with Young a cornerstone of her campaign. And some of Young’s closest advisers have endorsed Peltola and questioned Begich’s motives for running.
In the November race, Peltola faces Begich along with Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin and Libertarian Chris Bye.
Zack Brown, a former staff member for Young who was with him on the plane when he died in March, shared on Thursday a recording of Young addressing a group of Republicans in Fairbanks that Brown said came from a speech Young gave three weeks before his death.
“I believe in this job you have to be loyal and honest,” Young said.
“I hired that young man, showed him the ropes. I knew he wanted to run,” Young said, referring to Begich, adding that he advised Begich: “You run for the job, you don’t run against me.”
“Right off the bat, he hired my campaign manager,” he said. “That really makes me mad.”
“That’s not loyalty, nor is it honest,” Young said in the recording.
Begich hired Truman Reed, who previously worked for Young’s campaign. Reed, still working as Begich’s campaign manager, did not respond to a request for comment.
When Begich formally entered the race a year ago, while Young was still alive, he said it was “not about Don Young.” But since then, Young’s unforeseen death and the fight to carry on his legacy has shaped months of campaigning.
During a debate on Wednesday, Begich attempted to paint a picture of corruption in Young’s office before the congressman’s death. And after the recording was posted, Begich doubled down on the allegations.
“When Don Young passed away, I stopped talking about this, but they decided that they want to put Don Young back on the ballot,” Begich said.
Begich said that Young encouraged Reed to work for Begich, and that he was “disappointed” in what he saw during his month-long internship in Young’s office in March 2021, including witnessing staffers watching sitcoms in the middle of the workday and Young voting on the House floor “after having three or four martinis.”
“When I came home, I said no one is doing anything about this, no one seems to think this is a problem, his staff seems to be completely on vacation during the middle of the day, and they are taking directions from lobbyists,” Begich said. “I had an obligation. I had to step forward and run.”
[Peltola calls partisanship a national threat in debate against challengers for Alaska’s U.S. House seat]
In the special election that included several Republicans who had previously worked on Young’s campaigns — including Begich — it is Peltola, the Democrat, who has emerged as the candidate aligned with Young’s catchphrase of “congressman for all Alaska.”
At the Wednesday debate, Begich took a more hawkish position on bipartisanship while Peltola and Palin highlighted their friendship.
“I think it’s important that we communicate with one another but I’m not about to hold hands while we go over the fiscal cliff,” said Begich. “We need to stop going along to get along and we need to take a stand.”
Begich faulted Peltola during the debate for hiring Young’s former staffers after witnessing what he described as lazy and unethical behavior among staffers during his March 2021 internship.
“I’m sorry you had a terrible experience. But I have had a very positive experience,” Peltola replied.
She later called Begich’s allegations part of “a desperate attempt to win at all costs.”
Begich said Wednesday his criticism of Young was something that he “talked about quite a bit about in the beginning,” referring to his months of campaigning before Young’s death. Now, he said, he is bringing up the criticism again so people know what motivated him to enter the race.
Brown, the former Young staffer, accused Begich earlier this week of using Young and his staff “to secure inside info” with the intention of running against him when he traveled to D.C. for the internship. Brown declined an interview request on the allegation, which was made on Twitter.
Begich says that Young was aware of his intention to run against him when he requested to shadow the congressman in early 2021, after serving as Young’s campaign co-chair in 2020.
“Don Young and I were talking about this even before I helped him on his campaign,” Begich said Wednesday. “Don Young and his team knew full well throughout the entire process that I was looking at running for this seat.”
Meanwhile, Peltola has centered her legislative agenda, campaign ads, public appearances and endorsements on Young. On Thursday, Peltola’s campaign announced that Young’s two daughters Dawn Vallely and Joni Nelson had endorsed Peltola. The announcement came at the heels of Young’s daughters last week giving Peltola a tie once worn by Young — which Peltola wore to the Wednesday debate.
Begich and Peltola’s political haggling over Young’s legacy is part of a broader effort by Peltola to court middle-of-the-road voters and repeat her victory in a state won by Trump twice by wide margins, even as the two Republicans in the race are clamoring to harness the state’s new ranked choice voting system to their advantage. Peltola is the pro-choice candidate who also supports Second Amendment rights and during the Wednesday debate refrained from pinning the blame for the Capitol insurrection on former President Donald Trump, who has endorsed Palin.
Begich, who spent much of his earlier campaign attacking Palin’s record, has recently pivoted to questioning Peltola’s intentions. Her bipartisan overtures have not stopped Begich from trying to paint the race as one between two opposing visions for the country — and saying Peltola “aligns herself” with Democratic President Joe Biden and Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“We’ve got two teams in this country right now, that’s just the way it is,” Begich said during the Wednesday debate. “We’ve got the Democrats, we’ve got the Republicans.”
“The Democrats want to take freedom from you, they want to centralize government, they want to tax you more, and Mary Peltola has been a part of that,” Begich said.
[At AFN, Murkowski says she’ll vote for longtime friend and Democrat Mary Peltola for U.S. House]
Peltola — who has refrained from speaking negatively about other candidates in the race and has called partisanship a “national threat” — later called Begich’s assertions about her allegiance to Biden “laughable.”
“The people who really know me, know I’m tough. They know I’m not a pushover and they know I fight hard for Alaskans. I think that anybody who’s spoken with me in the (Biden) administration would also say the same thing,” Peltola said. “Just because I have a nice smile, doesn’t mean I’m not tough as nails.”
Pamela Day, who worked for Young for 17 years, was a signatory on a letter supporting Peltola co-authored by several of Young’s former staffers. She said Young “figured out there was a formula of how he could be effective for Alaska, which is his willingness to be bipartisan and reach across the aisle and look for consensus, and put Alaska first.”
[2022 Alaska voter guide: Candidate comparisons, videos of debates, voter resources, full coverage]
Day said Peltola “embodies a lot of those same characteristics and principles and understands what it will take to get the job done.”
“With Begich’s team, there has been a lack of respect for Congressman Young from before he announced up until his death,” Day said. “The lack of respect was hard to watch and hard to take.”
But not all of Young’s former allies are in Peltola’s corner. Rhonda Boyles, who worked with Begich as Young’s campaign co-chair in 2020 and is now supporting Begich, said she is “shocked” that some of Young’s allies are “so adamantly supporting a Democrat.”
“Forty years I worked with Don. I never heard him ever say that he’d condone putting a Democrat in his seat,” Boyles said.